After an extremely busy first half of 2011, HTC adds yet another Android phone in its long line of smartphones. With HTC's brand recognition booming right now, the Sensation arrives on extremely good footing, but does it deliver the experience to match this high bar of expectation, remembering that it will be one of the most expensive phones in Australia on a plan at AU$79 per month through Telstra.
Like Apple's MacBook range, the Sensation bares a style that is synonymous with its designer's. With a strong resemblance to the HD7 and Desire HD, the Sensation is unmistakeably a product of the same team responsible for so many of our favourite phones of late. In fact, from the front you could easily mistake this handset for either of the aforementioned, though its unique battery cover will be enough to settle any arguments you face when your mate picks up your phone off the table at the end of a night out at the pub.
The feel and appearance of its 4.3-inch is also immediately familiar. HTC uses a Super LCD panel in this screen and its warmth and sharpness takes us back to when we reviewed the Desire S and Incredible S only a few months ago now. This screen is more advanced than those on previous HTC's though, with a crisp qHD resolution increasing the pixels per inch of this lovely screen over previous models. Below the screen you'll find a strip of touch-sensitive navigation controls integrated into the glossy black bezel and an elongated earpiece grille over the display — a common feature on HTC's larger handsets.
The Sensation looks great, all in all, and though this design is far from unique in the HTC range, it should appeal to many. We do wish it was a tad lighter though, its 148 grams is noticeably heavier than the weight of the Samsung Galaxy S II and the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc.
A Sense for the user experience
Most exciting for HTC fans is the introduction of Sense 3.0, the latest update in HTC's long-running and critically acclaimed user interface layer for Android. This new iteration adds a faux-3D effect to the phone's home-screen rotation, giving your main interaction with the phone a spinning carousel-like look and feel. The phone's lock screen is also overhauled, offering four customisable lock-screen shortcuts and a couple of funky-looking animated backgrounds just for that screen, including a weather screen and an animated photo album. Also, if you loved the way HTC phones presented the daily weather information before, you're going to love the way the weather appears now in Sense 3.0.
The new-look weather app is a gorgeously designed affair.
These new elements build on all of the elements we loved in the previous version of Sense, which is found on the Desire HD and Incredible S, amongst others. Sense 3.0 still uses the HTC's customised notifications windows, with quick access to your application history, the task manager and commonly used settings.
Many of you reading this review will be weighing up the pros and cons between the Sensation and the Samsung Galaxy S II (GS2), undoubtedly the two juggernauts of 2011 thus far. If you're making this decision and the camera quality is an important factor for you, then we'd suggest you take another look at the GS2. HTC's cameras have come a long way in the recent releases, but the Samsung still takes the crown this time round.
If you choose the Sensation for any other reason, you'll still be very happy with the photos this camera takes. Its autofocus works over time picking out subjects as you line up shots, and when it works the results look great. The colour may not be as vibrant as those that you get when you use the Samsung and the focus is sometimes soft, but we were still pleased with the photos we took using this phone.
Under normal circumstances the Sensation's camera can shoot some fairly dull-looking shots.
Under our studio lights it saw much better colour, as you would expect.
The Sensation's excellent 4.3-inch display is an inviting feature for film buffs looking to treat this phone like a portable media player, but we will warn you to keep an eye on the kinds of files you want to transfer. If you have a collection of full-HD video transfers or files in MKV format, the Sensation will not tick all the boxes for you.
Our test media consists of files in a range of popular formats and resolutions. The Sensation worked well playing MP4, H.264, WMV and DivX files up to 720p resolution, but it struggled with our other videos. Our 1080p MP4 file, which has worked fine on devices using the Nvidia Tegra 2 chip, didn't refuse to play, but didn't display a picture and refused to stop after we exited the gallery, forcing us to soft reset the phone to restore it back to working order.
Another obstacle film lovers might have to hurdle in their multimedia experience is the lack of an HDMI port on the phone. That's not to say that you can't connect the Sensation to a TV via HDMI, you'll just need to invest in a Mobile High-Definition Link (MHL) adapter, an attachment that plugs into the phone's micro-USB port. At the time of writing, these cables were selling for about AU$40 and were reasonably difficult to find.
In terms of hardware, the Sensation joins a unique club of smartphones powered by dual-core processors, and is amongst the fastest on paper with a 1.2GHz clock speed for each core. But in the real world, far away from white papers, the performance of the Sensation is a little underwhelming. Firstly, let us clarify that we mean underwhelming in comparison to other phones we've reviewed — this is still a fast phone. However, it lacks the absolute responsiveness we see in the Galaxy S II and the iPhone 4. Simple tasks like opening the address book or launching the dialler take a moment for the Sensation to process and rob the phone of the fluidity we expected from a phone with such an impressive spec sheet and a price tag to match (no thanks to Telstra, of course).
If we could take a guess we'd say the Sensation and its unique combination of Android Gingerbread and Sense 3.0 could use a little more RAM. HTC includes 768MB RAM rather than a full 1GB and it appears this handset could have used the extra punch that memory may have provided. Perhaps the Sense UI could also do with a spring clean? The system is increasingly complex with each new version, with new elements added and none subtracted.
We've also had more trouble with our Sensation review unit than we've experienced with other HTC handsets lately. This unit spontaneously rebooted once and the Sense launcher crashes multiple times over the weeks we spent testing it. We also noticed the strength of the antenna seemed weaker than we would have expected. To be fair, we don't have any equipment to test signal scientifically, but anecdotally we did lose coverage in part of our testing area where we would ordinarily expect to have a connection to the network.
We also need to point a harsh, cold spotlight on the Sensation's disappointing, yet expected, single day battery life. As with the Galaxy S II, when we say single day we mean one day, tops. Nearly every evening during our review period we found the Sensation had either 5 per cent battery life or had completely discharged when we reached for the charger at the end of the day. A constant discharge of power in standby was the main culprit here, so if you're someone who likes to leave 3G on all day you'll want to plan ahead and carry a charger with you.
At the end of the day, the HTC Sensation is less than we expected, but a solid smartphone all the same. We expected excellent design, construction and a slick user experience, which HTC has definitely delivered. But we also expected its dual-1.2GHz processor to blow us away and it didn't, and that HTC would place specific importance on battery life after the complaints that followed the release of the Desire HD, and it hasn't. HTC has cut two corners in putting the Sensation together, with less RAM and a smaller battery than its competitors, and these sacrifices impact on the end-user experience, leaving us with a good phone, but not a great phone.